January 31, 2006

MUSIC: (well, sort of...)

Y'know, Germans love David Hasselhoff.

BOOKS: S Is for Silence, Sue Grafton (2005)

19th in the alphabetically-titled Kinsey Millhone series.

The first volume in the series was published in 1982, and time moves more slowly in Grafton's fictional universe than in our own; this volume of the series is set in 1987. Grafton says she prefers to keep the books in a pre-fax, pre-cell phone, pre-Internet era.

But that doesn't mean that Grafton's out of touch with current trends. Digging up ancient cases is hot these days -- heck, it's even got its own TV show, Cold Case -- and in Silence, Kinsey is asked to investigate the case of a woman who disappeared in 1953.

In order to tell us what really happened 34 years ago, Grafton does something she hasn't done in any of the previous Millhone stories. We get flashbacks, chapters set in 1953 and told in points of view other than Kinsey's first-person narration. They make up about a third of the novel, and give us the views of five people who knew Violet Sullivan.

Violet was, in the lingo of her era, the town tramp. She was married, but not very happily, to an abusive drunk, and flirted with anyone who'd pay attention. So there were plenty of suspects when she disappeared on the Fourth of July weekend -- husband Foley, the men she'd slept with, the wives of those men -- but since Violet was never found, no one knew for sure whether she'd been killed or just left town. Violet's daughter Daisy was only seven at the time, and she's never gotten over her mother's vanishing; she approaches Kinsey through a mutual friend and asks her to investigate.

It's an interesting case, and Grafton does a fine job of making it plausible that Kinsey could learn as much as she does about a case so old. As always, she gives us a fine array of plausible suspects, and the men and women she interviews in 1987 are convincing as older versions of the characters we meet in the flashbacks to 1953. The last few pieces of the puzzle fall into place very quickly in the final pages, and the last chapter, which throws Kinsey and the villain into a dangerous showdown, is particularly abrupt.

But it's an entertaining book, and when you consider how stale some mystery series get after only three or four volumes, the fact that Grafton's still doing work this good in her nineteenth volume is an impressive accomplishment.

MOVIES: Oscar nominations

The list.

That Best Picture field is awfully solemn this year, isn't it? There's not a light, fun movie on the list, and you have to think that the TV audience for the ceremony will be on the small side.

Some oddities:
  • It's the first time in 25 years that there's been a 5-for-5 match between the Best Picture and Best Director nominees.
  • Only three Best Song nominees. The music branch hears each song at a special meeting, with each member rating the song somewhere between 6 and 10 (Why 6-10 and not 1-5? I dunno); the five highest rated songs are nominated, but a song has to have an average rating of 8.25 to be eligible, and apparently, only three songs were rated that highly this year.
  • Fourteen of the twenty acting nominees are first-timers, an unusually large number. Only Dench, Theron, Phoenix, Keener, McDormand, and Hurt have been nominated before.
  • Favorite "someone's got too much time on their hands" stat: It's been 25 years since the Best Picture winner didn't get nominated for Best Editing; Brokeback Mountain, the presumed favorite for Best Picture, was not nominated for Best Editing.

Most of the major races seem to have clear front runners: Brokeback Mountain for Picture; Ang Lee for Director; Philip Seymour Hoffman for Actor; Reese Witherspoon for Actress; Rachel Weisz for Supporting Actress.

Supporting Actor's the exception; that looks like a battle between George Clooney and Paul Giamatti, with the Academy having to decide whether they'd rather atone for their earlier snubs of Giamatti or reward Clooney for his King-of-Hollywood year. I don't think Clooney's performance in Syriana is quite good enough to win the award, and they'll give it to Giamatti.

And I don't think all of those clear front runners are going to win, either. I think the Best Actor field is extremely strong, and the race extremely tight; Ledger's probably running in second, but the only name that would shock me is Terrence Howard.

Best Actress, I think, is a close two-woman race, and I think Felicity Huffman is going to beat Witherspoon (if anyone else wins, it will be a tremendous upset). Between Transamerica and Desperate Housewives, Huffman is as hot as an actress can get; she and husband William H. Macy are adored in Hollywood; and she's at an age where she's not likely to get many more juicy leading roles (unlike Witherspoon, whom the Academy will have many more chances to reward).

As for the Supporting Actress race, the first thing to say is Hooray! for Amy Adams making the cut; that made me happier than anything else on the list. I don't think, alas, she stands a chance to win. I fear that Michelle Williams is going to win, which will have me screaming at the TV; hers is the most undeserved nomination in the major categories, for the most overrated performance of the year.

Who would I like to see win? Capote; Lee; Hoffman; Huffman; Giamatti; Adams.

Who do I think will win? Brokeback; Lee; Ledger; Huffman; Giamatti; Williams.

Biggest snub (of someone who had no chance in hell of ever being nominated): Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mysterious Skin.

Biggest snub (of someone who actually had a chance): Joan Allen, The Upside of Anger.

January 29, 2006

MOVIES: Last Holiday (Wayne Wang, 2006)

Here we have a lesson in star power. Take a premise that was already tired the first time the movie was made (in 1950, with Alec Guinness), an odd assortment of B-list movie stars (Timothy Hutton, Alicia Witt, LL Cool J, Giancarlo Esposito, and a barely comprehensible Gerard Depardieu), and writing and directing that are on the pedestrian side, and you should wind up with a disastrous clunker of a movie.

But despite all those flaws, Last Holiday is a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours, and that's entirely due to Queen Latifah in the starring role.

Latifah plays Georgia Byrd, a shy department-store clerk who is told -- incorrectly, of course -- that she has but three weeks to live, and decides to blow her savings on her fantasy vacation. Off to the Czech Republic Georgia goes, to the Grandhotel Pupp (pronounced "poop," which generates too many punchlines), where she's put up in the Presidential Suite. Determined to enjoy her last days, she finds in herself a love for life that she never knew was there, and charms all of the hotel's guests and staff in the process.

Latifah brings life to scenes we've seen dozens of times before. There's a standard montage, for instance, in which Georgia goes to a high-end fashion store and tries on an array of glamorous outfits, and Latifah makes it feel fresh; Georgia's joy and amusement at seeing herself in these clothes -- and her laughter at the silliness of the more outlandish outfits -- give the scene more energy than you'd ever expect from such an old chestnut.

Queen Latifah is so warm and likable in this movie that she actually makes us care how this creaky plot turns out, which is a nearly miraculous trick. Any decent actor can make a good script work; it takes real talent to make crap entertaining.

January 26, 2006

So, Oprah has recanted her support for James Frey, author of the "memoir" (and Oprah Book Club selection) A Million Little Pieces. Previously, she had gone along with Frey's notion that the "emotional truth" of his book mattered more than its lack of actual truth; she now claims to have been "duped," and she's apologized to her viewers for having supported Frey at all.

This isn't surprising, really. Oprah's support for Frey came early in the story, before we had a firm grasp on how the public/culture was going to respond; now that it's clear that most people are appalled by Frey's fraud, Oprah needs to get onto that train before it leaves town without her. And what better way to condemn someone who's faked his own story of redemption than by staging your own "I've seen the light" story?

Further, Oprah's current book club selection is Elie Wiesel's Night, a memoir with a few minor factual inaccuracies of its own. They are very minor, indeed -- on the level of "was Wiesel 15 or 16 when such-and-such happened" -- and they are sort of thing that actually can be justified with the "people forget details, and it's the overall emotional truth that matters" defense that Frey tried to use to justify his much more serious fudging of the facts. But still, if Oprah had continued to support Frey, she'd have opened the door to every Holocaust denial nut: "That memoir wasn't true; why should we believe anything this one says?"

More than anyone in entertainment today, Oprah is supremely aware of her image, and of how her every action plays with her public. And today she's demonstrated that if she should accidentally take a stance that her acolytes won't go along with, she is more than willing to change her opinion to one that will please them. Oprah understands perfectly the old showbiz maxim: "It's all about sincerity; learn to fake that, and you've got it made."

January 24, 2006

TV: a new network

The UPN and WB networks are merging this fall to form the CW Television Network, which will take at least some of its initial programming from the two dying networks.

Which raises the question: Do the UPN and WB combined have enough respectable programming to fill one network lineup? (And like those networks, the CW will run a short schedule, needing to fill only 13 prime-time hours each week.)

From the UPN lineup, America's Next Top Model and Veronica Mars would seem to be obvious keepers, and this morning's press release made it clear that Smackdown, the 2-hour block of WWE wrestling, would be part of the mix.

From the WB lineup, it seems likely that Gilmore Girls, Supernatural, Smallville, Everwood, and Beauty & the Geek will all be back, and the Smallville producers have been working on an Aquaman spinoff that will probably be part of the lineup, too.

Other dramas currently airing seem less likely to survive: UPN's South Beach, and WB's Related, Charmed, and One Tree Hill (which probably has the best chance of this group to survive).

The new network doesn't have much bench strength in sitcoms. At UPN, Everybody Hates Chris is the bright spot, and the only of the network's comedies to find any significant audience beyond its African-American core audience (and even Chris is struggling to really break out with white viewers). WB's Friday night sitcoms don't do a lot better (but then, nothing does that well on Friday nights); Reba is probably the best of the bunch.

Still, they've got eight or nine hours of shows that should gather reasonably solid ratings (by UPN/WB/CW standards), and some interesting possibilities for schedule moves. Pairing Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars on one night, for instance, seems an obvious match of shows with compatible audiences.

Monday through Friday can probably be filled with existing shows with relative ease. Say, sitcoms on Monday (including Everybody Hates Chris), Gilmore and Veronica on Tuesday, Top Model or Beauty/Geek (these reality shows don't tend to run nonstop and could nicely alternate seasons in a single timeslot) and Everwood on Wednesday; Smallville and Supernatural on Thursday; and Smackdown on Friday.

That leaves Sunday, where whatever the new network does will likely be crushed by ABC's powerful lineup, so they might as well take some chances and try to do something different.

January 23, 2006

January 22, 2006

MOVIES: Best of 2005 -- the top ten movies

Counting down from #10 to #1:

  • Capote -- The questions this movie raises about the boundaries between an author and his subject are even more interesting in the wake of the scandal surrounding A Million Little Pieces.
  • Caché (Hidden) -- Is it an allegory? A dream? A puzzle? It's all of the above, and the few solutions it does offer only raise more questions, but sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.
  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang -- Smirky and self-referential, and with a plot every bit as confusing as the Chandler stories it pays homage to, but sharply funny and possessed of more comic energy than any other comedy of the year.
  • Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit -- Warm and charming, with note-perfect voice performances (who knew Ralph Fiennes could be funny?) and beautifully imperfect animation.
  • Junebug -- Lovely, subtle comedy about cultures in conflict, and the danger of love so smothering that it must be fled in order to survive.
  • Murderball -- Yes, it'll shatter your preconceptions about the disabled, but it's not just another social message documentary; it's a robust and entertaining movie, and it's fun to watch.
  • The Aristocrats -- The same joke, over and over, for 90 minutes, and it never stops being funny. A marvel of editing and pacing.
  • Me and You and Everyone We Know -- Writer/director/actress Miranda July walks the highwire in magnificent style, never taking the false step that would send the movie flying into the chasm of preciousness.
  • Nine Lives -- If you care about great acting, and great actors, then you have to see this movie; its nine scenes are a series of master classes.
  • Mysterious Skin -- A tremendously brave movie that acknowledges the horrible tragedy of sexually abused children, while refusing to reduce any of its characters to a two-dimensional villain or victim.

(And a few runners-up, any of which might have made the top ten had I been in a slightly different mood as the final list was drawn up: Brothers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A History of Violence, Match Point, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Pride & Prejudice.)

MOVIES: Best of 2005 -- actor

Far and away the strongest acting category of the year; the five performances on my runners-up list would all beat out any of the performances that made my final list a year ago.

The runners-up:
  • Russell Crowe, Cinderella Man
  • Alex Etel, Millions
  • Ralph Fiennes, The Constant Gardener
  • Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line
  • Ulrich Thomsen, Brothers
The finalists:
  • Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale -- Like Joan Allen in the Actress category, an actor who's willing to be hated. Daniels plays a pompous, self-absorbed boor without ever winking at the audience or trying to separate himself from the character in any way; it's a vicious performance.
  • Johnny Depp, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- There's great precision in the way Depp enunciates his words and tilts his head just so; it's somehow sunny and creepy at the same time. The most critically underrated performance of the year.
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
  • David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck -- Might as well talk about these two together, as they share the same strengths. Both are accurately eerie evocations of the men they're playing, but neither is content to be just a parlor-trick impersonation; there are real people behind all of the vocal mannerisms, and both actors show us the emotions hidden behind those mannerisms.

The winner:

  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mysterious Skin -- The performance of the year, and the fact that it's not even being talked about during this awards season is a travesty. It's a performance of tremendous power, sad, lyrical, and complex in its dealing with the emotional effects of chid abuse. Twenty years from now, I think we're going to look back on this performance as marking the arrival of a major talent.

MOVIES: Best of 2005 -- actress

This is probably the category where I'm most in line with what the Academy will actually do; three of my top five have a good chance to be nominated.

The runners-up:
  • Miranda July, Me and You and Everyone We Know
  • Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice
  • Lisa Kudrow, Happy Endings
  • Laura Linney, The Squid and the Whale
The finalists:
  • Joan Allen, The Upside of Anger -- What I love about Allen in this movie is her utter refusal to care about whether we like her or not; she is every bit as selfish and unkind and hateful as the character needs to be, and she's not afraid to be hated.
  • Felicity Huffman, Transamerica -- Yes, the physical transformation is impressive -- the lowering of the voice, the poorly trimmed nails, the awkward gait -- but Huffman also nails the emotional turmoil of a woman who's still learning how to be a woman. The final decision in this category was a tough one, and Huffman almost took the prize.
  • Connie Nielsen, Brothers -- Even as she's still struggling with the news of her husband's death, Nielsen has to contend with a brother-in-law who wants to take his place; the grief and confusion are palpable, and Nielsen is so solid that she carries us through the movie's more florid moments of melodrama.
  • Meryl Streep, Prime -- In drama, Streep is our most overrated actress, stiff and mannered; in comedy, she's like a different person entirely. She's spontaneous and natural, and never more so than here; she's particularly funny in the first half of the movie, when she's the only character who knows the big secret. The movie's dreck, but Streep's magnificent.
The winner:
  • Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line -- What can I say about this one that hasn't already been said? It's an impeccable performance, and I especially admire the way Witherspoon captures both the professional insecurities and the steely confidence with which June controls her personal life.

MOVIES: Best of 2005 -- supporting actor

The runners-up:
  • Tom Arnold, Happy Endings
  • Gary Beach, The Producers
  • Clifton Collins, Jr., Capote
  • William Hurt, A History of Violence

The finalists:
  • Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man -- Giamatti as a boxing trainer? In a period piece? I would have sworn that couldn't possibly work. But it does, and Giamatti is charming in a way he hasn't been before; he just keeps getting better with every movie.
  • Val Kilmer, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang -- Kilmer manages to make Perry flamboyantly gay and funny without ever quite tripping over the line into stereotype; it's an amazing juggling act that he pulls off flawlessly.
  • Ian McDiarmid, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith -- For an actor to manage any sort of performance at all under the direction of George Lucas is an accomplishment; to produce one as dry and witty as this is a miracle.
  • Peter Sarsgaard, Jarhead -- It's a movie about the fact that nothing is happening, which is rather a nasty challenge to present in an interesting way, and the movie doesn't pull it off. But Sarsgaard gives us a memorable portrayal of one man's collapse, reminding us that boredom can create an unexpectedly powerful level of stress.

The winner:
  • Kevin Costner, The Upside of Anger -- the post-stardom years were rough ones for Costner, but now that he's aging into his character actor years, he seems to be finding his ground again. Like his character in this movie, Costner's got just as much charm as ever, but he's gone to seed a bit; Costner plays up his dissolute side here, playing a guy who wants to do the right thing, if only he can figure out what it is.

MOVIES: Best of 2005 -- supporting actress

Not a good year in this category, I thought. Of those being touted as likely nominees, I thought Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) and Catherine Keener (Capote) were good, but neither struck me as awards-worthy. Scarlett Johansson (Match Point) and Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) were the weak links in their movies; Williams' big scene ("You didn't go up there to fish!") was the worst-played big scene of the year.

The runners-up:

  • Kathy Baker, Nine Lives
  • Emily Mortimer, Match Point
  • Robin Wright Penn, Nine Lives
The finalists:

  • Maria Bello, A History of Violence -- Bello uses space very precisely; there's as much being said in the constantly shifting spatial relationship between her and Viggo Mortensen as there is in any of the movie's dialogue.
  • Lisa Gay Hamilton, Nine Lives -- from the moment she walks through her sister's front door, we know her scene isn't going to end well; Hamilton radiates anguish and pain, and her final moments are a marvel of tormented indecision.
  • Thandie Newton, Crash -- I think less of the movie as time goes on; its characters seem less human and more like jigsaw pieces that the script is moving around to make its points. But it's Newton's performance that sticks with me, and gives the movie whatever moments of emotional honesty it has.
  • Celia Weston, Junebug -- The men in Junebug's family are a quiet, uncommunicative bunch, but one look at Weston is enough to explain why. Her lips pursed in perpetual disapproval, she's an intimidating figure, and we sense that her son has risked a great deal in coming home to her smothering, possessive arms.

The winner:
  • Amy Adams, Junebug -- She's the emotional center of the movie, vibrant and glowing (and not just from the pregnancy). Ashley is both strong and sweet, a combination we don't often see; it would be fascinating to look in on her in ten years to see whether Peg's soul-crushing presence has changed her at all.

MOVIES: Best of 2005 -- a few comments

I saw roughly 80 movies released in '05, which is down a bit from the last few years. Didn't see many foreign-language movies this year, and am planning to make an effort to see more this year.

I've seen almost everything that's likely to be nominated in the major Oscar categories. The few exceptions: Mrs. Henderson Presents and North Country, both of which are likely to land Best Actress nominations (and both of which will no doubt come back to theatres when they do, and I'll try to catch them then); four films with outside chances of landing acting nominations: Memoirs of a Geisha, The New World, Hustle & Flow, and In Her Shoes, none of which appeal to me enough that I plan to see them unless they actually are nominated.

Interesting that most of my omissions land in the actress categories; certainly not a deliberate thing, but something to keep in mind, perhaps, when planning my movie-going during next year's December awards crunch.

January 21, 2006

MOVIES: Nine Lives (Rodrigo Garcia, 2005)

Garcia gives us single moments from the lives of nine different women, each presented in a single uninterrupted shot of roughly ten minutes. And what a cast he's assembled! Those nine women are played by Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Elpidia Carrillo, Glenn Close, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Holly Hunter, Robin Wright Penn, Amanda Seyfried, and Sissy Spacek; also on hand are Mary Kay Place, Dakota Fanning, Joe Mantegna, Jason Isaacs, Aidan Quinn, William Fichtner, and Ian McShane.

As you might expect from so remarkable a collection of talent, the performances here are uniformly excellent. I was particularly impressed, though, by Baker's viciously honest work as a woman facing surgery with great fear and anger, and Hamilton's preparation for a painful reunion with her father, who has treated her very badly.

Garcia is drawn to women's stories; his first film, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her, had a similar structure, with slightly more connection between the stories (and an equally impressive cast, including some of the same actresses); Ten Tiny Love Stories is a collection of monologues for women (it doesn't appear to have ever been theatrically released in the US, but the DVD is now at the top of my Netflix queue).

The scenes in Nine Lives don't generally end with tidy resolution; on the contrary, they usually end precisely as each woman finds herself at an emotional crossroads, finally facing people and situations they can no longer avoid. There are common themes -- motherhood (Spacek and Seyfried play mother and daughter, the only two of the nine women with any significant connection), absent loved ones, lives that have fallen into ruts -- but there is no overarching plot. These are nine short stories, snapshots of single moments -- particularly dramatic moments, to be sure -- from ordinary lives.

Recommended very enthusiastically.

MOVIES: Cinderella Man (Ron Howard, 2005)

By all rights, I should have hated this movie. It's directed by Ron Howard, it stars Russell Crowe, and it's about boxing, the most repulsive "sport" there is.

But aside from my queasiness at the boxing scenes, it turned to be a fine movie.

It's the story of James Braddock, a washed-up boxer whose miraculous comeback led all the way to the world heavyweight title, inspiring millions of Americans during the Depression. (Familiar plot, isn't it? It's Seabiscuit with boxing gloves.)

The first hour or so is the best part of the movie; Howard (and screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman) do a marvelous job of capturing just how difficult the Depression was for so many families, struggling to make ends meet in the face of constant frustration and humiliation. Once Braddock's comeback begins, the movie can't quite overcome the predictability of the story (after all, no one would be interested in his story if he'd failed to win the title), but it comes closer than I'd expected.

The best performance in the movie comes from Paul Giamatti as Joe Gould, Braddock's trainer; I'd never have thought Giamatti would be convincing in a period piece, but he's well suited to Gould's scrappiness and self-deprecation. Renee Zellweger is also good as Mae Braddock (though her accent wanders all over the place), and she and Crowe are very convincing as a couple, with a solid chemistry and a strong sense of the love between them.

The boxing scenes are well-staged, and the final bout between Braddock and Max Baer (played with just a touch too much obvious villainy by Craig Bierko) is convincing in its exhausting brutality.

I still think that boxing is a foolish and inhumane waste of time, and I can't be entirely enthusiastic about a movie that celebrates it, but if you don't share those qualms, you should enjoy Cinderella Man a great deal.

January 16, 2006

MOVIES: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005, Andrew Adamson)

I was never a huge fan of the Narnia books, and The Lion etc. in particular bothered me with its painfully unsubtle Christian allegory. But my lack of affection for the movie has less to do with its preachiness (which is less painful than I'd feared it would be) than with its dullness.

The CGI effects are quite nicely done, but as we saw with King Kong, the danger of CGI is that the director is likely to obsess on it at the expense of everything else in the movie. This movie isn't as badly paced as Kong was, but once you've marveled at the pretty images, the rest of the movie is terribly flat.

The actors playing the Pevensie children are bland as can be; only Georgie Henley as Lucy musters up any personality at all. Tilda Swinton as the White Witch swoops through the movie in an atrocious wig and gowns that feel like leftovers from a bad Carol Burnett sketch; it's not a good performance, and it has nothing to do with the style and tone of the movie surrounding her, but I found myself grateful for her every appearance, because she is the only thing in the movie that has any energy at all. (In that regard, Swinton's Witch is to this movie what Renee Zellweger's Young Granny Clampett was to Cold Mountain.)

I did like James McAvoy, who is perfectly charming as Tumnus the faun, and the scene of Aslan's sacrifice is quite moving. But the movie is so plodding and hollow that its few minor rewards are certainly not enough to recommend it.

MOVIES: Inside Deep Throat (Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato, 2005)

Deep Throat opened in 1972, and quickly became the most successful pornographic movie in history, playing in mainstream theaters across the country. In this documentary, Bailey & Barbato explore how the movie became so popular, follow the movie's legal history (many obscenity trials), and examine the impact of Deep Throat on American culture.

There are interviews with many of the key players -- the movie's director, Gerard Damiano; the star, Harry Reems; many of the lawyers involved -- and with the expected assortment of talking heads -- Gore Vidal, John Waters, Ruth Westheimer, and the inevitable Camille Paglia among them.

The first half of the movie, about the making of Deep Throat, is the more successful half; Damiano is terrifically entertaining, spinning anecdotes about how the movie was written and filmed. The second half of the movie is less interesting, as Bailey & Barbato make overly grandiose claims about the ultimate importance of the movie; they also give somewhat short shrift to the post-Deep Throat life of Linda Lovelace, who would ultimately renounce the film and claim to have been forced into making it by an abusive husband.

Despite its flaws and overreaching, it's an entertaining documentary, often funnier than you'd expect it to be.

MOVIES: Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

Herzog's documentary introduces us to Timothy Treadwell, who believed that the Alaskan grizzly bears needed his protection. It's not clear what he thought he was protecting them from, since they lived on a Federally protected wildlife preserve, but "protect" them he did, living among for thirteen summers. For five of those summers, he took a videocamera with him, filming over 100 hours of videotape.

One of Treadwell's favorite themes is how dangerous the bears are. Several times he tells us that despite his friendship with the bears, if he lets his guard down for even an instant, they might kill him. And at the end of his thirteenth summer in the Alaskan wilderness, that's exactly what happened: Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and eaten by the bears.

Roughly half of Grizzly Man is made up of Treadwell's videotapes; he has a strong flair for the melodramatic, and is very concerned that his speeches to the camera come out just right, filming some speeches as many as a dozen times. He had, in fact, sought an acting career before going to Alaska; he was, according to his parents, narrowly beaten out by Woody Harrelson for a major part on Cheers, and never recovered from that failure.

The rest of the film is interviews with Treadwell's friends and family. (Huguenard's family chose not to cooperate with Herzog, and she is rarely present in Treadwell's tapes; all we really know of her is that she died with him.) The portrait of Treadwell that we get from those interviews is of a lonely man, so unable to find a place in the world that he retreated to the wilderness, adopting the bears as a surrogate family.

What seems clear to me is that Treadwell knew that his time among the bears would end as it did, and that on some level, he sought that ending. There's an odd gleam in his eye during his many "these bears could kill me" speeches, and his sadness as he leaves the bears each year goes beyond the sadness of someone leaving a place he loves; it is, I think, a deep depression at the thought that he's going to have to spend another year alive in a world that seems to have no place for him.

Grizzly Man is a painfully sad movie; we are, after all, watching Treadwell commit a slow, strange form of suicide, and he tragically took Huguenard with him. But Herzog, who has long been fascinated by madness and fatal obsessions, is the perfect director to tell Treadwell's story; he refuses to sentimentalize the story, or to make Treadwell a heroic figure. It's a riveting movie, and it's astonishing that it did not even make the list of fifteen finalists in the documentary category at this year's Oscars.

January 15, 2006

MOVIES: Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Spielberg tells us the story of the Israeli agents charged with hunting down and killing those terrorists.

The movie has taken some criticism for being anti-Israeli, and too sympathetic to the Palestinians; its critics say that it draws a moral equivalence between the killings committed by each side. I think this criticism is nonsense; Spielberg gives a Palestinian character the chance to state his case, but the Israelis are certainly the movie's heroes.

But even when killing can be justified in the name of revenge or self-defense, it exacts a high price on those who carry it out, and Spielberg shows us how that price is paid by the head of the Israeli team, Avner (Eric Bana). Like the rest of his team, Avner is not a trained killer -- their first few targets are killed in slightly bungling fashion -- and he is somewhat reluctant as the process begins; as he gets better at his job, though, he develops more enthusiasm for the task.

Violence, even when justified, inevitably begets more violence, and eventually Avner and his team find that they have become targets for assassination themselves. Fearing for his life, and those of his family, Avner begins to disintegrate, sinking into paranoia.

My biggest problem with the movie is that the philosophical questions Spielberg wants to explore don't quite mesh with the style of the movie, which is essentially a standard-issue thriller. All the obligatory action scenes are there -- our heroes risking death in their own explosions, an innocent young girl who may become an unplanned victim, and so on -- and the high-adrenaline rush of those scenes mixes poorly with the attempts at thoughtful, significant dialogue.

Eric Bana is very good, capturing every shade of Avner's constantly shifting emotions. Lynn Cohen makes a strong impression in her brief appearance as Golda Meir, and Michael Lonsdale steals his few scenes as Papa, the mercenary who supplies information to Avner and his team.

BOOKS: My Lucky Star, Joe Keenan (2006)

Keenan's fans have been waiting a long time for this one; the first two novels about these characters were published in 1988 (Blue Heaven) and 1991 (Putting on the Ritz). But finally, Philip, Gilbert, and Claire are back, and this is their funniest adventure yet.

Philip and Claire are a writing team, and when their friend Gilbert calls from Hollywood to announce that he's gotten them a movie job, they should be tremendously happy. But Gilbert turns out to have gotten the job in an unusually dishonest fashion (even by Gilbert's standards), leading the gang into an intricately plotted farce.

At the center of the story is the Malenfant family. Sisters Diana and Lily are straight out of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, former child stars who've gone on to greater (Diana) and lesser (Lily) success; brother Monty is an utterly charming old queen with no bitterness at all about the early failure of his own showbiz career; Diana's son Stephen is the hottest action star in Hollywood, but lives in constant fear that he'll be dragged out of the closet.

Philip winds up in the middle of the ongoing battle between the sisters, getting himself hired as Lily's ghostwriter in order to funnel information back to Diana and Stephen about which family secrets Lily plans to reveal in her memoirs. He and his friends are torn between sides; Diana offers the potential for career-changing success, but Lily and Monty are the more likable and trustworthy members of the family.

It would be unkind to give away any more of the plot, which is filled with clever twists and turns, all of which are fairly prepared and perfectly surprising at the same time. Before it's over, the story involves plagiarism, gigolos, a vindictive district attorney, and possibly the most embarassing sex tape in Hollywood history.

Absolutely magnificent fun, and I really hope we don't have to wait another fifteen years for the next installment.

January 11, 2006

BOOKS: Fledgling, Octavia E. Butler (2005)

Shori wakes in the middle of the night to find that her community has been wiped out, and she is the sole survivor; she is suffering from amnesia, unable even to remember her own name. As she regains her memory, she discovers that she is not human at all, but a member of the Ina race -- a vampire.

The remaining members of her family are killed in a second attack, and Shori realizes that the attackers will not stop until they have killed her, too.

Are the killers humans who have discovered that Shori and her family are vampires? The culprits could be other members of the Ina, who oppose the experimentation Shori's family had been doing -- research that allows Shori to remain awake during the day and even to survive exposure to the sun.

Butler rings some interesting changes on traditional vampire legends in Fledgling. The bite of a vampire, for instance, does not turn a human into a vampire. It is, in fact, a pleasurable and ultimately addictive experience, and each Ina lives with a community of several human symbionts, each providing nourishment for their Ina roughly once a week. Ina society is highly organized, and its structure quite different from that of humanity.

Butler's a fine storyteller, and her prose is terse and clean. Her characters are well-rounded, and their interactions entirely convincing; she is particularly good at depicting the changing relationships among Shori and the family of symbionts she gradually assembles.

The ending of Fledgling is a bit rushed and anticlimactic, as Shori's attackers are brought to justice. There is certainly room for a sequel, and I would be happy to see one; now that Shori is apparently out of danger, her re-adjustment to life among the Ina would make an interesting story.

January 08, 2006

MOVIES: Brothers (Susanne Bier, 2004/US 2005)

Very impressive Danish film about the cruelties of war and the struggle to change one's role in a family.

It's clear as soon as we meet Michael and Jannik that they are solidly locked into their respective roles as the good brother and the bad brother. Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) is preparing to leave with his military unit for his second tour of duty in Afghanistan; Jannik (Nikolai Lie Kaas) has just been released from prison after a bank robbery.

Almost as soon as Michael arrives in Afghanistan, the helicopter carrying his team is shot down, with all aboard presumed dead. Jannik is deeply affected by the news, trying desperately to become a more responsible man and to help his brother's widow, Sarah (Connie Nielsen).

We quickly learn, though his family does not, that Michael has survived the crash and been taken prisoner. He will return a changed man as a result of his experiences, and all three characters will struggle to adjust to the shifting dynamics among them.

The story occasionally borders on melodrama and soap opera, but the three principal actors are so solid in their roles that they carry us through the weak spots. Thomsen and Nielsen are particularly fine. This is the first Danish film for Nielsen, a Danish native who has gotten good reviews in supporting roles in Hollywood films (One Hour Photo, Gladiator, The Ice Harvest) without ever landing the big role that might make her a star; on the basis of her work here, she certainly deserves that kind of breakthrough.

MOVIES: Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)

This is a very well made movie, beautifully photographed and powerfully acted.

But I must say that I'm perplexed by the intense admiration some are feeling for it; I wasn't dazzled by it, or even particularly moved.

And as for all the hype about how groundbreaking it is? Nonsense. This is precisely the same story that straight people have been telling about gay people for decades: They are unhappy creatures who must suffer in eternal emotional agony for their unnatural urges; if they dare to dream of living a "normal" life, of actually being happy, they must be punished for their arrogance with death.

And E. Annie Proulx, the writer of the story on which this movie is based, is none too subtle in letting us now that she does see these men as unnatural and immoral; just look at the names she's given them -- Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar. Twisted and marred, that's how Proulx sees these men.

It's how everyone else in the movie sees them, too, which is certainly not an unrealistic depiction of life in 1963, when the movie opens. But the movie takes us into the earlly 1980s, and it seems awfully unlikely that neither man would ever find a sympathetic ear, or hear a single news report on the increased visibility of the gay civil rights movement. Jack, in particular, is desperate enough for a happy gay relationship that it boggles the mind to think that the best he can do is crossing the border for back-alley pickups in Juarez.

There's something depressing about seeing this tired old story hyped as some sort of breakthrough. Wake me up when we get a movie about a gay couple who have a happy long-term relationship before dying of natural causes late in life; that will be the real revolution.

(I do want to make note of the very nice small performance by Roberta Maxwell, who plays Jack's mother; she's on screen for only three or four minutes, late in the movie, and doesn't have much dialogue, but every glance and every facial expression speak volumes. Beautiful work.)

January 07, 2006

MOVIES: King Kong: Not Really a Review

So there's Kong fighting the dinosaurs and hurling Naomi Watts from hand to hand so recklessly that her neck should have broken in seventeen different places by now, and I'm looking at my watch again for the fourth time in 15 minutes, and we haven't even left Skull Island yet and it's dawning on me that oh my god there's still another hour-plus left to go before the damn movie ends and doesn't Peter Jackson have anyone who will say to him, "Yeah, the effects are cool, but this scene's gone on way too long already," and that's when I walked out.

January 02, 2006

It is Top Ten season, and I've already posted favorite books and music lists. I would normally be posting my movie list for the year as well. I took last week off work, as I usually do, planning to catch all the big year-end releases. But a nasty cold (I'm feeling much better now) kept me from seeing as many movies as I'd have liked, and my Best of '05 Movies list will be delayed by a week or two.

I know, there are always going to be movies you haven't seen when you compile a list, but there are enough biggies out there that I really want to see -- at a bare minimum, King Kong, Munich, and Brokeback Mountain -- that I'd feel weird compiling a list already. (And I don't think I can cram that much moviegoing into a single weekend!)

Some general thoughts, though: It's been a good year, and there will be 15-20 movies fighting for spots on my top ten list, which is more than usual. It's been an extraordinary year for performances by men, especially in the lead category; I could easily list ten that are better than anything on my list from last year. And it's been a particularly weak year for performances by women, especially in the supporting category, where I'll be scraping to put together a slate of five.

I am, of course, under no delusion that the world particularly cares which movies I liked and didn't, but didn't want my Loyal Readers to think I'd suddenly abandoned the world of movies.

MOVIES: Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, 2005)

We meet a lot of people very quickly in Syriana, and there aren't any strong connections among most of them.

Bob (George Clooney) is a CIA agent whose superiors don't know what to do with him. He has a tendency to cross the thin line between officially-sanctioned missions and rogue operations, and he's too outspoken to be put in a desk job where he can't be counted on to toe the party line when dealing with politicians. Bryan (Matt Damon) is an energy analyst, offering commentary on the cable networks and trying to help energy-rich countries make the most of their rapidly dwindling resources.

Bennett (Jeffrey Wright) is a corporate lawyer, tasked with investigating a potential merger of two oil companies, one of them his client, in hopes that he will find any improprieties that might exist before the Justice Department does. And Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) is heir to the throne, dreaming of modernizing his unnamed country and maximizing its revenues before the oil runs dry.

We're thrown right into all of their stories, and Gaghan doesn't waste any time filling in the background; we just have to grab as much info as we can from each scene, and trust that the missing details will be filled in later. They are, for the most part, and the characters (at least some of them) do find themselves more closely connected than we'd have guessed at first.

There's a large cast of fine actors on hand (Christopher Plummer, Amanda Peet, Tim Blake Nelson, William Hurt), and the performances are all very good, but the movie's message is ultimately so crude and simplistic -- Big Oil Bad; U.S. Government Worse -- that Syriana isn't so much a movie as it is a crude political rant. So desperate are US oil interests (private and public), we're told, that they will stoop to anything, including assassination, to keep the oil flowing in our direction. The movie is a heavy-handed preachy mess.

MOVIES: The Matador (Richard Shepard, 2005)

Danny's in Mexico City on business when he meets Julian at the hotel bar. Julian's had a bit too much to drink, and doesn't make the best of first impressions, but both men are stuck in town for a few days. With nothing else to do, they strike up a sort of friendship. Julian doesn't talk much about himself, but finally confesses the truth to Danny: He's a "facilitator of fatalities," a hit man, to be less grandiose. Unfortunately, Julian is also going through a nasty mid-life crisis, not fun for anyone, but particularly difficult for someone who risks death if he ever fails a mission.

Not a lot to say about this one. Greg Kinnear as Danny and Pierce Brosnan as Julian are near-perfect casting for these roles, and it's nice to see Hope Davis, as Danny's wife, getting to do something other than her usual brittle shrew. But the movie never settles on one tone, veering from dark comedy to serious drama; either choice might have worked, but the extreme shifts from one to the other could give you whiplash.

January 01, 2006

MUSIC: Best of 2005

I am not an album person, so no list of best albums from me.

But these are ten songs, new to me this year, that had me punching the replay button over and over (album titles -- and dates, if older than '05 -- in parentheses, for those of you who are album people):

"Muddy River," Laurie Anderson (Bright Red, 1994)
"Till I Can't Take It Anymore," The Beautiful South (Golddiggas, Headnodders, and Pholk Songs, 2004)
"Someone to Fall Back On," Jason Robert Brown (Wearing Someone Else's Clothes)
"Baby Got Back," Jonathan Coulton (download from his blog)
"Wishful Thinking," The Ditty Bops (The Ditty Bops, 2004)
"Hung Up On You," Fountains of Wayne (Welcome Interstate Managers, 2003)
"Hide and Seek," Imogen Heap (Speak for Yourself)
"Keep on Hoping," Raul Midon w/Jason Mraz (State of Mind)
"Words," The Real Group (In the Middle of Life)
"I Can't Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand)," Marty Stuart (Souls' Chapel)

BOOKS: Best of 2005

These were the ten best novels I read in '05 (though they were not necessarily published in '05). Links are to my original posts about each book:

Andreas Eschbach, The Carpet Makers
Minister Faust, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad
Ken Grimwood, Replay
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
David Maine, Fallen
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Kermit Roosevelt, In the Shadow of the Law
John Scalzi, Old Man's War
Katharine Weber, The Little Women
Robert Charles Wilson, Spin

More science fiction on that list than I'd have expected.

I don't read as much nonfiction as fiction, so I'll limit myself to a top five:

Malcolm Gladwell, Blink
Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics
David Rakoff, Don't Get Too Comfortable
Mary Roach, Stiff
Dan Savage, The Commitment

MOVIES: Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005)

It's a familiar routine by now. A new Woody Allen movie appears on the horizon, and we start to hear how well it was received at this film festival or that special screening. "It's his best movie in years," the buzz begins, "his return to form."

And then the movie arrives, and it turns out to be Hollywood Ending or The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Melinda and Melinda, and the buzz dissipates overnight, and we sink a little further into the belief that it's too late, that there never will be a "return to form," that Allen's washed up.

So when that old cycle started up again a few months back, as we began to hear how good Match Point was, it was easy to assume that we were just going to have our hearts broken again.

But wonder of wonders, the buzz holds up this time: Match Point really is the best movie Allen's made in at least fifteen years, probably his best since 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors (with which it shares much in plot and themes).

The setting is not Allen's usual Manhattan this time, but London, where Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) takes a job as tennis pro at a posh country club; one of his first students is Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). Tom and Chris hit it off, and Chris meets the entire Hewett family. He begins dating Tom's sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), but finds himself irresistibly drawn to Tom's fiancee, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a struggling actress from Colorado.

Tom's attraction to Nola is more about lust than love, but it's clear that he feels for her a kind of passion that's entirely absent from his feelings for Chloe, or for the comfy office job he's been given in one of the many Hewett companies.

It would be unkind of me to give away any more specifics about the story, but Allen's explicit theme here is the role of luck in human lives, and we are repeatedly bounced back and forth in very clever ways, as what appears to be a stroke of good luck turns out to be a disaster, and vice versa.

The cast is, with one exception, top-notch. Jonathan Rhys Meyers convinces himself that he's not responsible for the actions he's "forced" to take by luck and fate, and he almost manages to convince us, too; Emily Mortimer is heartbreaking as Chloe, who can never figure out why her marriage, and her husband, aren't quite as happy, as they ought to be. Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton turn in sharp performances as the Hewett parents; Wilton's dithering, borderline-alcoholic mother is a lovely bit of comic acting.

The problem is Scarlett Johansson, who is oddly flat throughout, and never seems comfortable in the role of femme fatale. Even when she's screaming, she's not so much seem angry as just loud. Fortunately, the movie's not really about Nola (though she does get lots of screen time); it's about Chris's reaction to Nola. She is, in essence, the movie's McGuffin; all we really have to believe is that Chris can't resist her, and Johansson is so strikingly gorgeous here that there's no reason to doubt his lust.

(Johansson is also starring in Allen's next film, Scoop, also filmed in London; her co-stars in that one will be Hugh Jackman, Ian McShane, and Allen himself.)

Despite the miscasting of Johansson, everything else about Match Point is so well done that the movie is absolutely worth seeing.